Some Puppy!

After our recent loss of Tabasco and Scooter, our farm was left without a canine. Dogs are essential to a working farm, whether for protection of the property or for herding livestock. Scooter’s loss, in particular, hit us hard in both departments. Suddenly, we had no dog watching the property while we were away from home. Suddenly, if the sheep or goats got out, we were on our own in trying to round them back up. Suddenly, there was no deterrent to predators which might visit our property by night.

Replacing a dog like Scooter isn’t easy, and I’m not confident we’ll find his equal. But we learned an important lesson with him: it’s best to start with a young puppy. Scooter was only about eight weeks old when we got him, and he was acclimated from that very early age to the whole environment and expectations of our farm. Ideally, we could find a border collie puppy to take his place…and we will continue looking for one. But, in the meantime, we need a dog of some sort to get to work.

Our solution was to scout the local humane society’s animal shelter. Fortunately, about a week ago, we found a promising prospect: a litter of German Shepherd mix puppies was available. They went fast, and we managed to get the last one. His name is Wilbur, and his is indeed…Some Puppy!

I’d almost forgotten how much fun little puppies can be; it’s been nearly four years since we got Scooter. He’s bright, inquisitive, and a quick learner. He enjoys tagging along as I do chores, and is eager to please. Best of all, he’s small enough so the other livestock (even the barn cats) are able to teach him his place and ensure he doesn’t turn predator. He may have some bird or hunting dog in his mongrel mix, but at this early age I think we can break him of any inclination he may have to attack the chickens or ducks.
I’d also forgotten how much trouble little puppies can be, especially before they’re housebroken. And how much they chew on everything. And get into everything. He spends his days in my office with me (and his nights in a crate in my office), and the building is unfortunately starting to smell like it. Hopefully we’ll get him big enough soon to be able to spend his nights in the barn, and by next spring to be patrolling the property at night.
And we’ll make sure we get the front of the property fenced tightly enough so he doesn’t meet the same fate that Scooter did.

Two in Two

I am going to be sick.

Just two weeks ago, we lost our beloved dog, Tabasco, to lung disease and old age. She was a close companion, which made the loss more difficult, but we were grateful we had a month or so get used to the idea that she was in a fatal decline.

We got no such warning last night. The kids were in bed, and I’d gone out to my office to watch the end of a television program. At about 10:45, I heard Scooter the border collie barking like I’d never heard him bark before. In fact, at first I wasn’t even sure it was him. The bark was higher pitched, desperate, and very intense. I grabbed my spotlight and went out to investigate, thinking perhaps he’d gotten in a fight with (or simply cornered) a wild animal. The bark was coming from the direction of the road, and was now so urgent that I broke into a full run down the driveway.

When I reached the road, I found no wild animal. Just Scooter, laying in the middle of the street, struggling — but failing — to get up. I ran still faster, to help him, but he’d clearly been injured very badly. He smelled awful, like the stuffing had been knocked out of him. I had to get him out of the road, and I wondered if we could make it to the vet in time.

I’m not sure if my attempt to move him aggravated an internal injury, but he was already going into shock when I tried to pick him up. A passing motorist stopped and carried my light for me as I hauled Scooter to the back porch; I didn’t get his name, but his sympathy was greatly appreciated and I wish I could thank him again.

Scooter was limp by the time I laid him on the porch. I ran in to tell Mrs. Yeoman Farmer; she’d heard the yelps, but hadn’t known what they were. She was as upset as I was about the whole thing, but we were glad the kids were already asleep.

I returned to Scooter’s body, and was surprised I could still feel a heartbeat. His eyes were glazed over, and his body was doing little other than twitching. I didn’t know if he could hear me, but I told him over and over what a good boy he was. And kept my hand on his chest, feeling his heart beat. Finally, he made one big sudden twitch…and then I couldn’t feel his heart beating anymore.

Not wanting the kids to discover the body in the morning, I hauled Scooter to the pasture where he’d gotten so much joy in giving us so much tremendous service. This morning, I got up early and dug a grave near where we buried Tabasco…but closer to the main path the sheep take to return to their paddock at night. I thought that’s where Scooter should rest: right near the place where he did his favorite work.

He was only four years old. He was in the absolute prime and vigor of health. He loved every instant of his life, and the things he got to do here on the farm: bringing sheep in and out from pasture, rounding up the goats when they’d broken through a fence, chasing down errant birds and holding them carefully until I could pick them up, getting big squirts of milk when the Yeoman Farm Children milked the goats, taking romps with me through the woods as I inspected a trap or fence line…I’ll never forget the way he’d yelp with joy and practically jump out of his skin when he realized it was time to get to work.

Which is what I need to do right now, actually. Stop typing and get to work, that is. I’m not yelping and jumping out of my skin at the prospect, but these weeks are absolutely jam packed with professional work for me. Which makes it the absolute worst time to have to cope with losing the Best Companion Dog Ever and the Best Farm Dog Ever in rapid succession. I am glad I have lots of work to immerse myself in. I’ll try to approach it with the enthusiasm Scooter would have for work on the farm.

But right now, my heart is too heavy and my eyes are too full to do anything but grieve.

Our Great Goose Group

Our property seems ideally suited for geese. Lots of grassy pasture, with a big low wet area that’s fairly swampy even all summer. I’m glad we got lots of extra goslings this year, because with this much grass they’re basically free to feed once they’re out of the brooder. A goose is a nice-sized meal for our family, yielding all the meat everyone wants, plus leftovers. And there’s nothing as delightful as the “goose grease” that melts off a roasted bird. We save it in quart mason jars in the fridge.

We had 14 goslings out there for a long time, plus one little hatchling, and the four mature geese. They’re a mixed bag of Toulouse and Embden. We lock them in the barn with the sheep and chickens at night. Then, a few nights ago, we had a bizarre incident: one of the juvenile goslings got his/her long neck tangled all up in some of the barn’s interior fencing. I discovered this when I came out to lock up for the night. Much like what happened with our dairy goat, Marigold, the bird got so wrapped  it ended up committing suicide. The goose’s body was still warm, so he/she couldn’t have been dead long. But I couldn’t revive it. A tragic and completely unforseeable waste, but the kind of thing that a stupid animal can do.

So, we have 13 remaining juveniles, and the little hatchling, and the four mature adults…and they make quite a group. Really remarkable how they’ve bonded as a unit. There’s a mature Embden gander who’s definitely the Alpha. There’s one mature Toulouse who’s the “mother” to the little gosling and makes sure he/she keeps up. Especially interesting is that when I or one of the dogs comes out and approaches the group, she positions herself in such a way that the little one is very hard to see. Even as they’re running, the shape of her body often makes the little one disappear. That’s good for him/her, but tough for me to keep track of. In the photo below, note the mother has positioned herself between me and the gosling, as the gaggle hurries toward the pasture.

They’re all so entertaining as they work the pasture, we could watch them and their interactions for hours.

But as the juveniles are maturing, we have a new concern: telling them apart from the mature adults. This is important, because older geese are not good to eat. The meat is tough as shoe leather, so our preference is to let them live out their lives once they’re more than a year old. We intend to butcher all of the juveniles this November/December, so we need to be able to identify them. Many are now almost as big as the adults, and fully feathered. Before they get any more mature, I needed to mark certain members of the gaggle.

The solution: I caught the four mature adults, one at a time, and put a heavy duty “rip tie” (or “zip” tie, or “cable” tie, or whatever you prefer calling it) around each leg, just above the knee. I left it just loose enough for more leg growth, but tight enough not to slip off. (I did both legs so we’d have a backup in case one came off.) I then trimmed the excess plastic.

Scooter had a grand time helping me chase particular geese down in the pasture. And he was indeed a big help. Border Collies are indispinsible when you have livestock. His instincts and abilities never fail to blow me away, especially since he’s had no training.

Hopefully all the rip ties will hold, and we’ll be able to keep these four mature adults to raise another gaggle of goslings next year. And enjoy lots of delicious roast goose this winter.

Last and Least

Our final ewe, Enigma, delivered today. It was just a single male, but he was up and on his feet quickly. This ends the lambing season!

Given all the activity with the sheep, and the number of other lambs, it was remarkable how well he was getting around and holding his own with the flock. However, given that he is completely in-bred (his sire produced him by breeding his own mother), there is no question that we’ll be butchering him this fall.

Scooter, our Border Collie, is doing his part to bond with the new member of the flock:

This makes a total of 14 lambs from 8 ewes…for a lambing percentage of 175%. This is outstanding, and we could not have asked for better — especially since we have not had a single death yet this year.

Dilemma Was Busy

How else to explain what happened yesterday? After putting up last evening’s blog post, putting things away in my office and the house, and getting ready for bed…I couldn’t fight the sense that I should put my boots back on and take one last look at all the new animals in the barn. Being a farmer is oftentimes not unlike being a parent: you feel many of the same anxieties and worries that accompany being entrusted with new little lives that are utterly dependant and unable to fend for themselves.

My first stop was the upstairs portion of the barn, where the chicks and goslings are being brooded. My primary anxiety about them concerned the heat lamps; it was going to be a chilly night, and if anything happened to one of the big 250W infrared bulbs we could easily lose a large number of birds by morning. (Don’t ask me how I know.) But everything was perfect with the birds: they were spread out like a solid blanket under the heat lamps, twittering softly as they slept. The waterer was almost empty, so I made a mental note to fill it first thing in the morning. In the meantime, I didn’t want to disturb their sleep.

From there, I lifted the trap door and made my way down the stairs to the sheep area. It was pitch black, so I shone a flashlight all around. Much to my surprise, I spotted two more brand new little lambs, still dripping wet. They were standing unevenly on their feet, near Bianca, who still had afterbirth coming out of her rear end. Scooter, for his part, was standing just on the other side of the fence and watching them protectively.

I’ll have to check, but I’m almost certain that three ewes delivering five lambs on a single day is a new record for us — and especially impressive given that we had only one breeding ram in with the flock. I’ve long thought Dilemma was a beautiful animal, but this new feat has proven his stud abilities definitively.

Given all the new little lambs underfoot, I thought it prudent to leave the lights on in the downstairs portion of the barn overnight. This morning, I managed to get some pictures of Bianca’s new arrivals (which are one male and one female):

Ever wonder how the mother ewes can tell which lambs are their own, when so many lambs of roughly the same size and color are running around? Especially at night? The answer is smell. Each lamb produces a distinctive scent near its hindquarters, and the ewes identify their own lambs that way. Bianca demonstrates the correct technique here:

And as a lamb latches on to nurse, you’ll often see the ewe sniffing the lamb’s rear end to make sure this is one of her own. If it isn’t, she’ll twist away and then butt the lamb with her head.

I could sit on the barn steps and watch these animals for hours. But now it’s time to wrap this up and get back to work.

Out With the Old, In With the New

We had such a large number of lambs born (and survive) last year, it was impossible to take them all to the butcher in one trip. Our solution was to take a first batch last October, with all the large males, and to keep the runts and females to see if we could fatten them up a bit. I even planned to try butchering one of the small ones myself, just to see if I could figure it out.

One thing led to another (or, more precisely, one bitterly cold snowstorm led to another) all winter, and I never did get around to trying my hand at butchering a lamb…or even driving the second batch in to the butcher.

Finally, today, I got my act together and cleared out the seven remaining lambs. They’d been eating us out of house and home, plowing through the hay that needs to last until the pasture begins growing — but they weren’t putting on much weight. Yesterday, I made the call to the butcher to see if I could get them in; Wednesdays are the only day they do lambs and goats. Fortunately, they had some availability, so I made the appointment.

I went out to the barn early this morning, to make sure everything was okay with the sheep. I flipped on the lights, and immediately noticed the Scooter the Border Collie was acting a bit unusual. He seemed extremely interested in what was going on in the sheep area, was wagging his tail purposely, and had his muzzle tucked into the fence separating him from the sheep. One quick look revealed what had Scooter so interested: a tiny black lamb, tottering near the fence.

Maybelle, one of our best mother ewes, was hovering protectively over the lamb, not quite understanding that Scooter was only trying to be protective (and helpful), too. A moment later, I spotted another tiny black lamb…and realized that Maybelle had done it again: delivered twins, and delivered before any of the other ewes. Her streak now extends to seven years in a row.

The arrival of Maybelle’s twins (one male and one female) meant it was doubly important to get those seven extra lambs from last year out of the sheep pen. All the extra bodies would only multiply the opportunity for little lambs to get trampled.

I managed to get our old 1984 Ford Bronco II fired up, and the rear seats folded down. Spread some old paper feed bags on the floor to catch sheep droppings, and then backed her into the barn. Homeschooled Farm Boy (HFB) helped make sure we barricaded both sides of the Bronco, to discourage any escape attempts. He then helped me pick up Maybelle’s lambs, and we used those as bait to lure her outside to the fenced sheep paddock. We also got Dilemma, our big breeding ram, out of the barn; he would have been liable to attack us as we caught the lambs to load them on the truck.

With the barn door shut, Scooter, HFB and I quickly caught lamb after lamb and hauled them into the back of the Bronco. The hardest part was hoisting each lamb up and in, and closing the rear hatch door, without any of the already-loaded lambs pushing their way out. Fortunately, between the three of us, we managed to get all seven loaded without any escapees.

As there is only one spare seat in the Bronco once all the lambs are loaded, our children take turns being the one who gets to ride with me to the butcher. This was HFB’s turn, which he thought was very exciting. Scooter always goes as well, in case he’s needed to quell a jail break. (The Bronco’s rear window does not latch, and we have had animals — particularly goats — try to escape at stop signs. Plus, when unloading at the butcher’s, anything can happen.) So, at about 7:40am, all of us set off.

With seven four-legged passengers in the back, and one four-legged passenger up front with us humans, we had a very full vehicle. The seven passengers in the back were particularly upset about having missed breakfast. Also, every time we went around a corner or came to a stop, all seven of them would tumble in one direction or another — and I would have to look carefully to make sure none was attempting an escape through that rear window. Needless to say, I made sure I obeyed all the traffic laws as I drove; I couldn’t imagine the conversation with a police officer, were I to get pulled over.

With HFB’s help, and Scooter looking on attentively, the unloading went off without incident. Once all seven lambs were secured in the holding pen on Death Row, I went around to the retail portion of the shop and explained to the butcher how I’d like the lambs prepared. HFB, Scooter and I then sped off to Mass in town; we managed to arrive just in time for HFB to get dressed to serve on this the Feast of the Annunciation.

Once back home, we were able to get some good pictures of Maybelle and her lambs (both of which seem to be doing very well):

Just another crazy day in the life of a homeschooling yeoman farm family. A family, I might add, that is looking forward to lots of dinners featuring delicious Icelandic lamb.

Late Night…With Queen Anne’s Lace

We have three dairy goat does: Queen Anne’s Lace (our original doe, bred and drying up but not currently being milked) and her two daughters, both of whom recently had twin kids. Those two daughters, Button and Marigold, get a ration of supplemental grain in the morning and evening; this helps them keep their milk production up, ensuring their hungry kids get as much as they need.

In the mornings, I scoop that grain into a pan and set it in an empty stall in the barn. At the sound of the grain hitting the pan, Button and Marigold eagerly stand on the gate and look to see what’s taking me so long. Scooter the Border Collie also knows the routine, and plants himself just outside their gate. Once I open the gate, Scooter’s position blocks the goats from going anywhere but toward the empty stall with the grain. (Not like they need any help from Scooter — both goats make a beeline for that grain even when he’s not with me.)

I then re-latch the gate, and get hay for the sheep while the goats eat their grain. By the time I return from the sheep pen, the two goats are finished and ready to be let back in to the main goat area. Once they’re back in, I secure the gate behind them.

Homeschooled Farm Girl takes care of this chore in the evenings, and it usually goes off without a hitch…except when it doesn’t. Last night, she apparently didn’t get the gate secured all the way. While we were inside eating dinner, and then spending a little time watching something on the History Channel, the goats managed to get their gate open and disperse themselves all over the barn. Queen Anne’s Lace (QAL), being the largest, oldest, and smartest doe, knew that a couple of swift head-butts to the grain can would manage to tip it over — and she wasted no time settling in for a feast.

Homeschooled Farm Boy didn’t discover this disaster until he stopped by the barn to turn the lights off for the night. With Scooter’s help, he managed to get all the goats back in their pen…but he was concerned about the amount of grain that QAL had ingested. If a goat eats too much grain all at once, they can develop a terrible (even fatal) case of bloat. He had me come out and take a look at her, but not much time had elapsed yet. QAL still looked fine. But as Mrs Yeoman Farmer was concerned she might still develop bloat, I agreed to check back a little later.

Back out in the barn at 11pm, it was unmistakable: we had a terribly bloated goat. Remember those old Alka-Seltzer commercials, where the person blows up like a balloon and moans, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing“? That was the look that QAL was giving me.

MYF swung into action, getting out one of her natural goat care books and reviewing the instructions for dealing with bloat. We put a half cup of olive oil into a jar, got out a new 30cc syringe (with no needle), and together headed to the barn. Somehow, with MYF straddling QAL to hold her in place (and shoo away all the other goats, who were terribly curious and wanting to get in on the action), I managed to drench all of the olive oil down the goat’s throat. Then came the really fun part: trying to get QAL to run around outside, and heavily massaging her bloated belly every time she stopped. Given her bloated state, running around seemed the last thing on her mind — and goats can be very stubborn when they make up their minds about something. Even Scooter wasn’t much help in getting her to move.

We managed to get QAL to belch a few times, but weren’t making too much progress. MYF sent me in the house for another half cup of olive oil, which we again drenched down the goat’s throat. More belly massage. More trying to get her to run.

At least it was a really nice night to be out — clear sky, huge canopy of stars, and comfortably warm (hey, after the winter we had, 50F feels sweltering). As we worked with the goat, alternating between running and massaging and listening for belching, MYF and I found ourselves having a fun time joking and chatting and getting caught up on what’s been going on.

Finally, at midnight, we figured we’d gotten all the gas out of QAL that we were going to get out. We returned her and Scooter to the barn, double-checked that the goat gate was secure, turned out the lights, and called it a night. Back at the house, I fell into bed and went right to sleep.

This morning, before doing anything else, I headed straight to the barn to check on QAL. She looked a bit tired, and still a little on the large side, but no longer bloated. Her udder and teats looked fairly full of milk; that could be an effect of the grain, and I’m hoping it doesn’t mean she’s about to deliver her kids. But I may have our children put her in the stanchion and see if they can milk her out today.

There’s never a dull moment on a farm. Even when you might really, really want one. Like at 11pm on St Patrick’s Day.

But we still wouldn’t trade this life for anything.